by Greg Papadopoulos, PhDDec 07, 2017
I remember listening skeptically to a talk at MIT by a young Mitch Kapor describing how he was going to take on VisiCalc with an even better “graphical spreadsheet” that was going to be so fast and expressive that people would go beyond way bookkeeping and “build really interesting models and do all kinds of business analysis.” It was late 1981—IBM had just introduced its first PC to compete with the Apple II—and just a few months later, Mitch and Jonathan Sachs founded Lotus Development Corporation.
The Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet singularly drove PC adoption throughout business, as millions of people created exactly the kinds of models that Mitch had imagined. Suddenly anyone with insights into their business problems (and a reasonably good foundation in algebra) could create their own automated computer tools. By 1990, staying competitive in business meant you had to know how to use a spreadsheet—whether you were running a small sales team, managing a supply chain or encoding your trading knowledge in increasingly sophisticated spreadsheet-based algorithms.
A generation later, the foundations in computational thinking run much deeper. Go to any university and you’ll find a majority of undergraduates taking some sort of class in computer science. This doesn’t mean that any college graduate could go create a mobile application—the tool sets just have too steep of a learning curve—but it does mean they can imagine it.
Perversely, that sense of what’s possible often leads to frustration: “There should be an app for that! I know exactly what it should do. Why doesn’t someone write it?” I imagine it’s not too different from the well-educated business person in 1980, thinking that there must be a better way to perform certain tasks, but lacking an accessible tool set to express those thoughts.
So, it was with much less skepticism when I listened to Praveen Seshadri describe how his company AppSheet was going to let anyone who can write a spreadsheet create mobile apps that would be so compelling and expressive that they would go way beyond data browsing and “build really interesting interactions that capture all kinds of mobile business processes.” I knew this was a devilishly hard problem, but Praveen was convincingly deep in his understanding of the challenges and the power of his approach.
They recognized that the spreadsheet is the workhorse of organizations: it is ubiquitous. But it does not reflect the mobile nature of today’s workforce and the expectations of how modern tools look and feel. It is tied to the desktop, when we expect functionality to extend across an array of devices, both online and offline. How does the spreadsheet remain relevant in a mobile-centric world?
AppSheet’s answer: Decouple the user interface from the data. Build mobile apps from spreadsheets (or any other data source) in the cloud. Let the spreadsheet continue to do what it does best while modernizing the way data is accessed and used on mobile devices. Then, make the process as intuitive as working with a spreadsheet so that anyone can create a mobile app.
That was 2015, and now just two years later, Praveen and his team at AppSheet are at the threshold of the next revolution in software development. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people who would never think of themselves as programmers, doing precisely that with AppSheet and creating super compelling mobile apps that they imagined.
There are, of course, other approaches to making mobile app development accessible to non-developers, such as drag-and-drop low-code environments. What’s easier though? Having an app automatically built for you based on the data you have using a metaphor you understand, or building the app from the ground up yourself? Even a little code can be a mighty obstacle for a non-developer, and empowering the user is central to realizing the powerful potential of these applications.
Praveen and AppSheet are doing for the mobile phone what Mitch and Lotus did for the desktop computer: enabling anyone and everyone to create the software that they can so readily imagine, making a real difference to business efficiency and value.
As AppSheet likes to say: “Make an app. Use it in your world.”